Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Reductions to 'top down' community governance arrangements

Southwark is looking to reduce the number of community councils in the borough. This will be achieved by merging Borough & Bankside with Walworth and combining Bermondsey with Rotherhithe.

Rotherhithe features both areas of high deprivation and Docklands development.
Bermondsey includes solidly working class areas and redevelopment closer to London Bridge

This is being done in order to save money. It is part of a trend I have seen across London over time to reduce or entirely eliminate local authority run community governance structures such as 'area committees', 'ward forums' or other devolved arrangements. The savings made are usually tiny, but the real cost is the loss of a method of engagement focussed on the very local.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Prospective council in Harlesden

Friday, 29 April 2011

Parish Watch Updated

This map records areas that are investigating the opportunity to form a local/parish council in London and links to relevant news stories. The areas on the map correspond to wards and do not represent proposed boundaries.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

London boroughs reluctant to encourage parish councils

This is an article I wrote for City Mayors.

Since 2007, neighbourhoods in London have the right to form councils responsible for their own community governance. These parish councils, which already exist elsewhere in England, have substantive powers and serve populations of a just a few thousand. Envisaged as a mechanism for residents to take greater control of their lives, there has been a positive response from communities and several new councils are proposed. There appears to be a political consensus on the value of these councils, should communities decide they want one. However, there is apparently no political will to systematically create them across London and existing local authorities are at best indifferent to them. This could potentially mean the communities that need them most will miss out.

Parish councils have existed in rural parts of England since 1894. Their raison d'être was to provide some local control for small communities who received the majority of their local government services from distant county and rural district authorities. As interwar London suburbia expanded across open fields, part of the rural way of life that was swept away were the parish councils, which were all abolished in the outer suburbs by 1935. When Greater London was formally created in 1965 it must have seemed an efficient measure to eliminate parish councils from the legislation, as none had existed for thirty years.

Most of the history of parish councils therefore takes place away from London. Over time they have evolved and are now permitted in urban areas, and their number has been growing since 1974. They are able to go by a variety of names including town, village, community or neighbourhood. The powers available include planning oversight, maintenance of open spaces and provision of community infrastructure. The services they provide are funded by a local tax known as a precept, with a typical charge per household of around £30 ($50) a year. In 2007 the prohibition of parish councils in London was lifted.

There are around ten or so prospective parish councils in Greater London. The vast majority are in the higher density Inner London area. All are at a very early stage in their development, with a proposal for Queen’s Park in northwest London the most advanced and coherent. The process of creation takes at least a year and requires the local authority to undertake a review of governance arrangements. Rich and poor live amongst each other in almost every district of London and the proposed areas on the whole reflect the diversity that is found even in a very small area. A recurring theme in the proposals is a feeling that the existing local authorities, the 32 borough councils, have failed to respond to the needs of a particular area.

Three concerns are voiced by residents in the proposed areas. They are the level of increased taxation, as Londoners already pay a local tax to two existing authorities; the legitimacy of proposed boundaries, as the neighbourhoods in the urban sprawl are not separately defined other than for electoral purposes; and the range of powers that would be available. The Localism Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament, potentially gives parish councils increased powers over planning. It is proposed that the planning system will move from a consultative model where parish councils are a stakeholder in the process to them having direct involvement with the production of neighbourhood plans.

In order to ascertain the likely success of these councils there are a number of places we can look. Firstly the urban fringe around London is almost entirely served by parish councils. Chigwell, Loughton and Buckhurst Hill, all on the London Underground and part of the urban area, have parish councils created relatively recently. There are a scattering of parish councils in the metropolitan areas surrounding Manchester and Birmingham. However, the Buckinghamshire town of Milton Keynes provides the exemplar for the development urban parish councils, with the entire new town covered, following a review by the borough council. The local authority there sees the councils as a way to reinforce community identities and provide a framework for consultation and delivery.

The Milton Keynes experience mirrors the development of community boards in New York. These were systematically created in every part of the city. However, their powers are not as far reaching as those proposed for London and they lack the variable tax raising powers. It is unlikely that the community councils that will be formed in London will be the result of a sweeping reform of community governance, unless a borough council decides to lead the way or the mayor of London is minded to encourage localism of this form. Most likely the development of these councils will be piecemeal and from the bottom up.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

London Fields Community Council public meeting

Today I was present at the public meeting to discuss the creation of a community council for the area around London Fields in Hackney. The meeting consisted of a series of presentations and a question and answer session. Of particular interest was a talk about how neighbourhood planning, a feature of the current Localism Bill, could work with a community council. The questions highlighted a range of opinions about the necessity for a community council and the potential role it should play.

First some background. Hackney is one of those areas of London where the smallest unit of local government has been unusually large for some time. The apparently anomalous union with Stoke Newington, which was alluded to in the meeting, has been an intermittent feature of local politics since 1855. Whereas in other areas of London there is a tradition of very small units of local government that have been gradually amalgamated, in Hackney the local face of politics has always been quite large. Or to put it another way, there is no sense of a community council as a means to revert to something that has been lost.

The questions focussed on the usual bones of contention: the precept, boundaries and powers. There appeared to be a three way split forming on the precept: those who thought it was an unnecessary burden, those who thought it was worth paying to get results, and those who wanted it set as low as was possible. Politics in microcosm.

The potential planning power was explained in impressive detail, using the nearby example of Chatsworth Road (@chatsworthroad). I felt that it was perhaps pitched slightly wrongly for the audience, who might have become fatigued by buzzwords and vision, but nonetheless some could see the practical benefits of having some control over planning policy. London Fields is an area of reasonable public transport access and is close to the central London fringe. It is prime for intensification and this is not aligned to community aspirations.

Proposed boundaries of the community council

On boundaries a conversation was clearly started. This could potentially be a thorny issue. London Fields is about as close to the urban core as it is possible to be. Natural boundaries are hard to discern and even using the canal as a southern boundary did not manage to form a consensus. This is a peculiar problem for parish councils in Greater London and is perhaps one that will only ever be fully resolved during the community governance review process which is undertaken by the London borough council.

What struck me about the meeting was how astute the members of the public who came were. They could instantly see the potential pitfalls and the benefits and asked questions accordingly. Some were unconvinced, even after hearing the example of a working parish council outside London and the impressive neighbourhood plan created by Chatsworth Road. What was also clear, as is the case in other meetings elsewhere, is that there are within the community a core of people who genuinely care about where they live and are prepared to make an investment in time and activity. It is unclear if in London Fields a community council will provide a vehicle for their efforts, but based on this starting point, it is certainly possible.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Wapping Town Council proposal

During the summer of 2010 a proposal came about for a town council in Wapping. The proposal seems to have gone cold, with the public meeting held in July 2010 highlighting some particular concerns.

Two problems appear to be specific to Tower Hamlets. Firstly the proposal seems to have become confused and conflated with the creation of a directly elected mayor for the borough. The argument that the town council could be a counterweight to an as yet unelected mayor was not a clear one to grasp in July 2010. Residents were perhaps uneasy about so many changes they did not understand, especially when the matter of costs is broached but not fully elucidated.

More significantly the ghost of the 1980s Liberal Democrat decentralisation of the borough (now reversed) appears not have gone away. There is suspicion voiced in the meeting that this is some sort of "back door" attempt to divide up the borough again. Not that the 1986 decentralisation was that unprecedented. Before 1900 the Wapping area was divided between two fairly small local authorities, the vestry of St George in the East and the board of works of the Limehouse District. But collective memory only goes back so far.

Town Hall of St George in the East

The main problem with this campaign appears to have been getting bogged down in detail too early. On the subject of powers (i.e. benefits) there is a vague promise of oversight over planning, but the extent of the power isn't made clear. The idea that the community can negotiate with Tower Hamlets Council over what services they will run met with scepticism. This distrust of the council could have been capitalised on, but was not. Concrete examples of what the town council could do would probably have helped residents see the potential.

Town Hall of the Limehouse District

Most significant appears to be the precept. Although this is an important consideration in the setting up of a local council, by making it an issue this early, before the services to be provided had been considered, it was a little like putting the cart before the horse. The choice of speakers, that included a local councillor who might feel usurped by the town council, was probably not the best choice at this stage.

In summary, the proposition offered a vague range of services that might become locally provided, with an unspecified level of control and for an unspecified cost. Hardly surprising this did not excite the local population into action. I don't doubt that a local council could be valuable to the community in Wapping, but what this proposal shows is that a well organised campaign is as important as need.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Campaign for a Queen's Park Community Council launch

Today I was lucky enough to attend the launch event for the proposed Queen's Park Community Council.

The campaign to create a statutory community council has come about because the Queen's Park Forum, created by the Paddington Development Trust, is about to have a 100% cut in government funding. The local council proposal is intended to preserve and continue the work undertaken since 2003. It is the most advanced proposal for a community council in London and could be on track to be the first.

There was a good turnout for the launch

The Queen's Park ward of Westminster appears to be one of those neighbourhoods in a local authority area that through accidents of geography and history are left on the sidelines. The area was once administered from Chelsea, three miles away to the south, until in 1900 when it was added to the northern tip of Paddington. Since 1965 it has formed the northwest protrusion of the City of Westminster. Perhaps because of this history or because of political and physical differences with the rest of the borough, it has needed its own voice in order to flourish.

The campaign launch was positive and clear: your community is under threat and a statutory community council could provide a lifeline. The organisers must gather enough signatures (10% of electors) to force Westminster City Council to consider their proposal.

Petition for a community governance review

The Queen's Park proposal has a number of things in its favour. First of all the messy business of boundaries is taken care of. The council will operate in the Queen's Park ward, which is the same area as the forum. Secondly, the existing forum has a track record of achievement and, finally, the networks in the community are already there. The two speakers at the event from the Queen's Park Forum were confident, articulate and proud of what their community had done and what they saw as its future. As they spoke I felt convinced they would succeed.

The campaign is well organised. The message clear, concise and not bogged down in technical specifics. There was photography, media involvement and a sense of occasion was created. The proximity of the impending cuts created a feeling of urgency which is probably an advantage in getting traction. The challenge, of course, is getting the message outside of the room and connecting will all sections of the community, those who don't come to such meetings, and locking them in to the proposal.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Parish Watch

This map records areas that are investigating the opportunity to form a local/parish council in London and links to relevant news stories. The areas on the map correspond to wards and do not represent proposed boundaries.

Update history
15/01/2011 Created
23/01/2011 Added London Fields
10/02/2011 Added Chingford

Friday, 14 January 2011

Localism Bill: Neighbourhood Planning

This is the second in a series looking at various aspects of the Localism Bill.

Just as the Localism Bill removes the regional tier of the planning hierarchy in every region other than London, it also creates a new one: the neighbourhood. Neighbourhood planning authorities are envisaged as either being superimposed on existing structures, so a civil parish could also be a neighbourhood for planning purposes; or as the area of operation of less formal groups designated as "neighbourhood forums". Each will produce a neighbourhood plan.

This will impact on London in a number of ways. Firstly, planning will potentially be split between three tiers of local governance: the mayor, the boroughs and neighbourhoods. Secondly, the planning incentive for forming a parish council will be lost as the enhanced planning powers will be available to any group. Finally, there is potential for the less formal neighbourhood forums to be short-lived or through attrition become dominated by an individual or group.

There are also significant limitations to the neighbourhood plans which may affect their efficacy and attractiveness to communities. They cannot cross borough lines. This is an old restriction, which dates back to local government reforms in the 19th century. It was also a potential problem for the proposal to create a parish council for Thamesmead which straddles Bexley and Greenwich.

However, the most significant limitation of neighbourhood planning in London will most likely be the frustration that communities will have when they realise they must conform to national planning guidelines, the London Plan and their local authority development plan. How much impact will these community groups have, given these restrictions? How will they go about navigating these policy documents? Where will the skills come from? Is their planning experience going to consist of being repeatedly told their planning decisions are invalid?

Monday, 3 January 2011

London in Maps: Inner London boroughs (1900-1965)

The first collection of maps is now available to view. It is a simple one, the 28 boroughs that formed Inner London before 1965 that are now twelve London boroughs. It is worth noting that even in this period some of the boroughs are the result of earlier amalgamations and at the time many covered more than one recognisable community.

Some were very large in terms of population. Wandsworth, for example, peaked at 353,110. Other boroughs closer to the City of London were very small and experienced rapid depopulation as the suburbs in outer London grew. Shoreditch had a population of 111,390 in 1911, reduced to 40,455 in 1961.

The full set of maps is available to view here.